On February 22, the George Washington University’s Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication (IPDGC) hosted David Ensor, former director of the Voice of America, and renowned journalist, as speaker for the 2016 Walter Roberts lecture. Dr. Ensor focused much of his presentation on how the United States should respond to the hostile communications environment it faces in the world today. Russian disinformation, terrorist propaganda and online recruiting efforts, a decidedly unpolished presidential campaign – all work against the US government’s interests abroad. Dr. Ensor believes the State Department can no longer be “squeamish” about dealing with these problems; counter-messaging, counter-narratives, and other offensive tactics are necessary going into the future.
Voice of America plays a crucial role in this strategy. Dr. Ensor cited viewership data showing that the broadcast agency has grown consistently over the past decade despite budget cuts, reaching 180 million people worldwide and as much as 25 percent of Iran’s population. Voice of America should and does export American freedoms to a global audience; its “honest journalism” serves as a contrast to the propaganda. Some in Congress feel that the institution should lean more towards policy advocacy to better counter that propaganda, but Dr. Ensor believes “telling the truth about ourselves” and sticking to the high road of objective reporting will better serve the state’s interests in the long run. Further, he argued persuasively that no matter which path Voice of America takes, it will “need an audience” to have any impact. That audience tunes in today because they trust the coverage. Talking to the world about the Snowden leaks, the Ferguson riots, and the Trump campaign, warts and all, builds credibility – which is the currency of the communications realm.
The balance of Dr. Ensor’s presentation focused on a bill currently floating around Congress. In addition to redefining Voice of America as an advocacy organization, this bill would split the news agency from its sister groups, such as the Radio Frees, creating competition, redundancy, and an inefficient hierarchy. While Voice of America is to a degree “handicapped” by its budget and the detached Broadcasting Board of Governors currently overseeing it, Dr. Ensor argued that this bill would do more harm than good in attempting to address those ills. As an alternative, he suggested that the government’s public diplomacy efforts restructure under a strong, unitary CEO that understands the strengths and limitations of soft power in the digital age. For that restructuring to happen, however, Congress itself must understand the advantages of soft power in advancing our agenda.
Check out the video of the event here.